Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

A Bee In A Cathedral

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

A Bee in a Cathedral by Joel Levy is a fascinating book of science analogies and astonishing numbers. Suitable for all ages, only the physics section is a bit complex. A few of my favourites factoids:

  • Every day 1 million meteoroids strike the Earth
  • How far to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri? Travelling in a rocket at 250,000km/h, it would take you 18,000 years
  • Most of the living cells in your body are less than a month old
  • About 50 million neutrinos are passing through you now
  • Every molecule in a glass of water is changing partners billions of times a second.
  • How hard does your heart pump blood? Empty a bathtub in 15 minutes using only a teacup —repeat this without stopping for the rest of your life
  • If an atom were blown up to the size of a cathedral, the nucleus would be no larger than a bee buzzing about in the centre.a-bee-in-a-cathedral

The Little Prince

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a fable about a pilot who crashes in the desert and meets a wise child. It’s one of the world’s most translated books (in 250 languages) and the top selling French book. It has the most intriguing sentence in all children’s literature:

What is essential is invisible to the eyes. (L’essential est invisble pour les yeux.)

What is ‘essential’? Is it truth, love, soul, uncertainty? These are the questions the story evokes. The opening chapter about following your dreams is brilliant. Saint-Exupéry was a pilot who also wrote great adventure books (eg. Wind, Sand and Stars ). His delicate watercolour illustrations are near perfect too.

Le+petit+prince+-+First+edition+cover++-+1943

Struwwelpeter

Sunday, January 4th, 2015

The book has long oscillated between being accepted as harmless hilarity and being condemned as excessively horrifying- Humphrey Carpenter

Struwwelpeter (Pretty Stories and  Funny Pictures) by Dr Heinrich Hoffman (1845) is a classic of gleefully gruesome cautionary rhymes about naughty children. Hoffman was a psychiatrist who founded an influential Frankfurt asylum and pioneered counselling as an alternative treatment to cold baths. The characters in Struwwelpeter were inspired by his child patients – he’d tell them stories and draw pictures to calm them down. Hoffman was looking for a book for his three year old son and could only find ‘stupid collections of pictures, and moralising stories’, so he created Struwwelpeter. It was one of the first picture books designed purely to please children – before 1850 children’s books were mainly religious and moral lessons with titles such as An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children. Read more about ‘Shock-Headed’ Peter here.

The Awful Warning carried to the point where Awe topples over into helpless laughter.– Harvey Darton

struwwelpeter

 

Self Editing – 3 Books

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

Anyone can write but editing must be learned. P.G. Wodehouse was a relentless editor, polishing his manuscripts to perfection – Douglas Adams (The Salmon of Doubt) described Wodehouse’s unique system:

‘When he was writing a book he used to pin pages in undulating waves around the wall. Pages he thought were working well would be pinned high, and those that still needed work would be lower down the wall.’

The aim was to get the whole story up to the ceiling level. Here are 3 books that have helped me learn to edit:

Self Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King teaches the mechanics of style, dialogue, point of view, ‘show not tell’, character, beats.

The Art of Writing by John Gardner is a more stringent book which talks about maintaining the ‘dream’ of the story – when the writing draws attention to itself (in a bad way) then the dream is broken for the reader.

Go over and over it…refusing to let anything stay if it looks awkward, phony, or forced.– John Gardner

On Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (1934) explores the idea that a writer is both artist and self-critic – a writer begins with the unconscious mind ‘bringing at demand all the treasures of memory’; but then the conscious mind ‘must control, combine and discriminate’ (that’s editing in a nutshell).

 The writer must be as God in his universe — present everywhere and visible nowhere. -Flaubert

The Magnificent Moomin Comics

Saturday, December 6th, 2014

There is great exuberance in the Moomins, and a delightful battyness. – Jeanette Winterson

The Moomin comic strips by Tove Jansson (originally from the 1950s) are reprinted in five magnificent hardback volumes. The comics are a lovely balance of  humour and optimistism. The free-spirited Moomins live in the moment and these comics are still relevant, commenting on consumerism, the environment and work. For example, in The Conscientious Moomins, an officer of the League of Duty admonishes Moominpappa for being a drop-out; but when Moominpappa joins the establishment, all the pleasure goes out of his life, and he returns to his old philosophy of

‘Live in peace, plant potatoes and dream!’

 

Flannery O’Connor On Writing

Sunday, November 30th, 2014

Fiction should be both canny and uncanny. – Flannery O’Connor

The best short story I’ve ever read is Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find – it certainly has the most powerful ending. Her stories can be dark, her characters grotesque, but there’s always a redemptive thread and a tough spirituality that’s never preachy. O’Connor honed her writing to near perfection despite the pain of lupus which killed her at the age of 39. Here are some of her incisive thoughts about the writing process from her collection of essays and lectures, Mystery and Manners:

If you want to write well and live well at the same time, you’d better arrange to inherit money.

When I sit down to write, a monstrous reader looms up who sits down beside me and continually mutters, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t see it, I don’t want it.’

Fiction is about everything human and we are made of dust, and if you scorn getting dusty, then you shouldn’t write fiction.

There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the fiction writer can hardly do without and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting to the point at once.

As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees.

The writer has to judge himself with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s severity.

 

The Strawberry Snatcher book

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher is a classic picture book that almost didn’t make it. It took Molly Bang years to create and it was repeatedly rejected by publishers – they said it was ‘peculiar-looking’ and that ‘children won’t relate to an old woman as a protagonist’. The manuscript sat in a drawer for years, was re-worked and finally published to some critical reviews, writes Molly Bang: ‘The New York Times that said that the weird-looking characters and flashy colors were an indication that I was part of the drug culture and the detailed pictures told no real story but were merely an excuse to show off.’ Then it won a Caldecott award and everything changed. Why? It’s a one-of-a-kind, off-the-wall book, and very creepy! I love the tiny fungi that grow where the Strawberry Snatcher has trod.

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A Wonder Book

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

The classic picture book Calico the Wonder Horse — The Saga of Stewy Stinker by Virgina Lee Burton was published in 1941. I adored this comic-book style cowboy adventure as a child mainly because of the bad guy. Stewy Stinker is so low he steals Christmas presents from children but in the end he repents. This picture of him crying out his rottenness always made me feel sorry for him:

The word ‘Stinker’ was censored from the book in the 1940s as it was considered inappropriate for children. Burton was one of the great illustrators and the idea for Calico from seeing her sons engrossed with comic books. The wonderful design, cartoon framing and action scenes of Calico are worthy of a modern graphic comic: the flash flood and stagecoach crash are gripping highlights. But it’s that haunting image of Stewy that will stay with me.

Sci-Fi Classics

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

I loved science fiction when I was a young teen – especially short stories about time travel, which usually had surprise endings. In Arthur C Clarke’s All the Time in the World, a man freezes time a second before a nuclear blast; in A Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury, the death of an insect changes the course of history. I still have my old copy of Bradbury’s Golden Apples of the Sun; the Corgi paperback cost me 65 cents new in 1970 (about the hourly rate for raspberry picking in my summer holidays). A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was a novel ahead of its time in 1960 (it was rejected 26 times by publishers). Its plot combines wormholes and angels and has a classic ending: a giant disembodied alien brain is defeated by love. L’Engle liked to tackle grand themes, as she said:

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.

Tibet in Comics

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

Old Tibet was once the essence of the mystical in Western eyes: with tales of mysterious Shangri-La and the yeti; the remote Himalayas; the serenity of Buddhism and its Dalai Lama. This essence has influenced many comic stories, such as wartime hero, Green Lama (1945), who got his strength by reciting a peaceful Buddhist mantra. Tintin (1958) experienced the power of Tibet when led by a vision to find a lost friend – even the Dalai Lama praised Tintin in Tibet.

Old Tibet was no paradise but, sadly, the culture is fading fast. China invaded in 1950 and destroyed 6,000 Buddhist monasteries; and in 1959 the Tibetans rose up and thousands died. There’s since been a long struggle against the occupation – some Tibetans want independence, others (like the Dalai Lama) would settle for religious freedom and some autonomy.

Wodehouse – a world where things come right

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

‘There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, “Do trousers matter?”’

‘The mood will pass, sir.’

P.G. Wodehouse (WOOD-house) created a world without earthquakes, wars or dictators (except Roderick Spode whose ‘eye that could open an oyster at sixty paces’); where nothing mattered, except tidy trousers, and nothing broke, except engagements. He was a brilliant writer who cooked up similes like a master chef:

His legs wobbled like asparagus stalks.

She looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression.

Her face was shining like the seat of a bus-driver’s trousers.

Wodehouse published 90 books, writing until his death at 93 years. When asked about his technique he said ‘I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit’. All his books make me happy, but my favourite is Right Ho, Jeeves, about Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, who is ‘so dashed competent in every respect’. The chapter where  Gussie Fink-Nottle presents the prizes at a private school is a great example of slow-building comedy.

The sheer joy of stories which offer a world where things come right.– Sophie Ratcliffe (Wodehouse, Letters)

Read Stephen Fry’s tribute to P.G. Wodehouse.

 

The Curioseum – Review

Friday, March 28th, 2014

This is a wonderful collection for children aged 8-12… Museums are hives of story, both real and imagined. These 22 authors have created new stories surrounding some intriguing objects from Te Papa Museum… Raymond Huber writes one of the most memorable stories in the collection, of a unique breed of humans who mature into insects (a highly original allegory). – Sarah Forster

Photos of the curious objects which inspired the stories

Listen to the stories and explore The Curioseum.The_Curioseum_cover_large

 

Classic Comics 3. The Beast Is Dead!

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Comics were banned in WW2 occupied France but Edmond-François Calvo secretly produced a powerful satirical comic that became a French icon after the Germans retretaed in 1944. La Bete Est Morte! is the story of the bloody European war told with Disney-style animal characters: with the French as rabbits; British bulldogs; and German wolves (Goebbels is a weasel, Himmler a skunk). La Bete Est Morte! is a forerunner of the brilliant graphic novel, Maus, with its Nazi cats and Jewish mice. Here’s an extract:
My dear little children, never forget this: these Wolves who perpetrated these horrors were ordinary Wolves … They were not in the heat of battle excited by the smell of powder. They were not tormented by hunger. They did not have to defend themselves, nor to take vengeance for a victim of their own. They had simply received the order to kill.

War is old

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Alice Walker’s picture book Why War Is Never a Good Idea begins with the bright, comforting colours of a book for young children, but as War devastates the land the images become grim. It’s a scary message and parents will have to judge if it suits their children. The illustrations by Stefano Vitale are evocative and Walker’s words are true:

Though War is old

It has not become wise.

Though War has a mind of its own

War never knows who it is going to hit.

Walker comments: ‘War attacks not just people, “the other,” or “enemy,” it attacks Life itself … It doesn’t matter what the politics are, because though politics might divide us, the air and the water do not … Our only hope of maintaining a livable planet lies in teaching our children to honor nonviolence, especially when it comes to caring for Nature, which keeps us going with such grace and faithfulness.’

The Adventures of Hergé

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

You must marry the wind of inspiration with the bone of graphic clarity.– Chang Chong-Jen.

The Adventures of Herge is a must for Tintin geeks although it’s not for children. It’s a Hergé (George Remi) biography done in the ‘clear line’ style of a Tintin comic book. Hergé fell in love with drawing in 1914 when his mother gave him some pencils to ‘calm him down’. The book is a fascinating insight into the influences on Hergé and the political and emotional difficulties he faced, especially during wartime working under the Nazis. Most moving of all is the story of his friendship with Chang Chong-Jen (which inspired Tintin in Tibet). Chang helped him refine his beliefs and drawing style. Before reading this book it might help to know a bit about Hergé, or to read the appendix first. Download a 5 page sample of the comic book here.

Tove Jansson Sculptor’s Daughter

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

A book whose small, huge work is the healing of the divisions between the child state and the adult state; of a child-sized truth about how things connect. – Ali Smith

Sculptor's-daughterThe Christmas present I couldn’t resist opening early: Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson is a beautifully written childhood memoir that reads more like short stories. Jansson was the creator of the charming Moomin books had a Moomin-like family: affectionate, creative, and liberal. Her parents were well known Finnish artists: her father a sculptor, her mother an illustrator. She spent much of her childhood on the Pellinki islands in the Gulf of Finland. This new edition of the 1968 book is an exquisite little hardback.

 

Beautiful Christmas Book

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

nativityThe Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas, is my favourite Christmas book. The pictures bring warmth and humanity to the story by showing the love between Mary and Joseph, the pregnancy and the rustic setting. Oddly, it sits well with the poetic language of the 17th century King James bible version. Vivas also illustrated the wonderful book for babies,  I Went Walking.

Rare Bee Novel

Monday, November 18th, 2013

Children’s fiction about honey bees is rare and this gem from 1957 is hard to find. A Swarm in June by Rosemary Garland is a charming junior novel that beautifully combines bee lore with childhood wonder. Seven year old Jonathan  finds a wild swarm in June (‘worth a silver spoon’) but a visiting cousin is scared of bees. It takes an attack by a stoat to unite the cousins in the end. It’s an innocent tale and the bee wisdom is timeless: beating a gong to attract a swarm; tracking bees with thistledown; and ‘telling the bees’ about important events in our lives. Best of all is the way the boy is so comfortable around the bees.  IMG_2465

Great Honey Book

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Honey, Nature’s Golden Healer by Gloria Havenhand is a superb book that deftly balances bee science, beekeeping expertise, folklore and health tips. Honey is more than just another spread for your toast:

‘Most people know very little about honey and its healing powers… Research has shown honey deserves to move into the serious league for healing.’

I thought I knew every fascinating fact about honey but I found many new insights here:

  • Beeswax is made by bees only 10 to 18 days old who consume about 10 kg of honey to make 1 kg of wax.
  • A little honey before bedtime fuels the brain overnight because the live stores the sugar (fructose).
  • Raw honey is best to eat. Most supermarket honey is treated which removes vitamins, anti-bacterials and pollen nutrients.
  • Always scrape out the honey jar – that last 1/10 of teaspoon represents the honey collected by one bee in her entire lifetime. honeybook

Classic Books For Babies

Sunday, August 11th, 2013

There’s a real tenderness and occasional profundity stitched into them. – Helen Brown (Telegraph)

It shouldn’t work but it does. Classic novels including War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist as board books for babies. Each book is cleverly condensed into twelve words suitable for very young children. The secret is in the charming photographs which tell the story with hand-made felt dolls posed in famous scenes from the novels (not the gruesome bits). The books are simple, funny and will appeal to adults as much as children. The series is Cozy Classics.

Cozy-Classics-Pride-and-Prejudice-Muddy1Picture 1: Elizabeth Bennett gets muddy on the way to Netherfield.

Picture 2: Andrei and Natasha dance; Pierre is jealous.

Cozy-Classics-War-and-Peace-Dance

Flight of the Honey Bee Launch

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

This handsome, respectful volume deserves a place on the shelf … it succeeds in accurately dramatizing honeybee behavior. – Kirkus Reviews

Flight of the Honey Bee review by artist, Claire Beynon:
“Given the state of our environment, the sooner we introduce our children to bees – to their intelligence, their intricate behaviour and increasing vulnerability – the better. Flight of the Honey Bee is the perfect book to do this, combining as it does Raymond  Huber’s careful language and well-researched text with Brian Lovelock’s meticulously observed paintings. Cleverly formatted, fiction and non-fiction – story and fact – are woven together as two discreet yet interconnected strands: young readers can choose their flight path.

Exquisite to look at and a pleasure to explore.

HONEYBEE COVERScout the bee – named after the feisty protagonist in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird – and her tightly-knit community of hardworking bees demonstrate these small creatures’ importance in the pollinaton of plants and the well-being of our planet. Flight of the Honey Bee is about bee behavior but it will also teach children about subtler things; wonder, beauty, the value of group functioning and collaborative effort, reproduction, risk, courage, the joys of flight – those rhythms and principles essential for any thriving community. The hum of the parts.

This book has all the essentials of a satisfying story: it asks questions and it informs. It invites observation and participation. There’s drama. Suspense. Conflict. Danger. Hope. And a happy ending. At the close of her adventure, Scout is a wily-er bee than she was when she set out from her hive on her first nectar-seeking adventure. As all characters must, she grows through her experiences. We come to care about her and her safe passage home.

Visually, Flight of the Honey Bee is exquisite to look at and a pleasure to explore – each double page spread is as stunning as the one preceding it. It will be immediately appealing to young readers. I was struck by how beautifully integrated the text and images are; they belong together like honey and honeycomb. The language is tender and witty (the line about ‘sun-powder’ is a wonderful change from ‘gun-powder’); and the paintings  – a combination of watercolour, acrylic ink and coloured pencils – are spectacular; compositionally bold, delicate, exuberant and information-rich. Looking at them through my adult eyes, I can’t help thinking about fractals, the mathematics inherent in nature, the ever-present background dialogue between shape and sound, pattern and colour.  Children will  pore over them. And they will love Scout for her feisty resourcefulness.

More Flight of the Honey Bee reviews.

 

Monster Picture Books

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Here are three of my favourite New Zealand picture books that give children a manageable dose of horror. Gavin Bishop’s Horror of Hickory Bay has grown on me over the years. The story of a bland family on a Canterbury beach and an amorphous beast seemed a bit coarse to me 25 years ago, but now I love the earthy monster (which has a new force in quakey times). Diane Hebley said it best:

I find this book fascinating for its masterly use of colour and design, its grim humour, its coherence of idea, text and image, and for its acceptance of the dreamworld reality.

hickorybay

The Were-Nana by Melinda Szymanik is a creepy delight about a visiting relative who might just be a monster. The suspense is nicely built up and the double surprise ending (true to horror traditions) is brilliant. Odd cover choice but fine shadowy illustrations by Sarah Nelisiwe Anderson.

Te Kapo the Taniwha by Queen Rikihana-Hyland is out of print but was always popular in class. It’s the story of a half-man, half-monster who was given the job of shaping the South Island. Zac Waipara’s pictures are stunning as usual.

Unsung NZ Sci-Fi

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

Three neglected science fiction books by New Zealand writers:
The Red Dust by Bee Baldwin (1965) is one of the first NZ post-apocalyptic novels. A deadly red dust released by Antarctic drilling wipes out much of the world. A group of immunes must survive roaming gangs and a mastermind who wants to rule New Zealand. It’s a chilling, well-structured story, with great use of NZ settings (this adult novel was inexplicably in my primary school library where I read it at age 10 and understood about 10%).

red dust

The Unquiet by Carolyn McCurdie is a strikingly original intermediate novel and a suspenseful read. It has an apocalyptic opening when the planet Pluto and parts of the Earth’s surface vanish. A small town girl has a gift for sensing unrest in the fabric of the universe and becomes the focus in a battle as the novel turns into a fantasy.

unquiet

Where All Things End by David Hill describes a spectacular journey into a Black Hole. A mission to study the hole goes wrong and the crew race towards the Singularity- a point where all things become no-things. A ripping yarn underpinned by a convincing depiction of space travel and universal theories.

 

 

New Moomin Book

Friday, January 11th, 2013

firstmoominbookAt last! The original Moomin book has been released in an elegant hardcover English edition for the first time.  Moomins and the Great Flood (1945) is a junior novel that reveals the Moomin’s origins.  Moominmamma and her son leave the world of humans (where they lived behind stoves) and become refugees, seeking their lost beloved, Moominpappa, who has been swept away by a flood. We meet the characters who will populate the later novels: Sniff, the Hemulen, the Antlion and the surreal Hattifatteners, who “did not care about anything except travelling from one strange place to another.” This poignant story was Jansson’s response to the Second World War that had interrupted her painting career. The book has her beautiful atmospheric watercolours.

 Reading this book in the light of the suffering of the Finnish people in 1939 as they were caught up in the turmoil of their Winter War casts a different glow over what is essentially a classic adventure story.– Esther Freud

Why Does The World Exist?

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Why Does The World Exist? by Jim Holt is a fascinating book that asks the question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’  Holt looks at all sides of the question, interviewing scientists, philosophers, atheists and believers (Richard Swinburne, John Irving, Roger Penrose, Adolf Grunbaum…). There are three types of theorist:

The “optimists” hold that there has to be a reason for the world’s existence and that we may well discover it. The “pessimists” believe that there might be a reason for the world’s existence but that we’ll never know for sure… Finally, the “rejectionists” persist in believing that there can’t be a reason for the world’s existence, and hence that the very question is meaningless.

Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason says that ‘For every thing there must be a reason for that thing’s existence‘, which is the basis of our scientific worldview. Holt does a good job of summarizing some knotty philosophy, physics and maths (understanding it is another matter!).  Although he offers no firm answers, the book left me feeling “optimistic”; and it’s oddly comforting that after picking the brains of the world’s greatest thinkers, Holt concludes,

No one can confidently claim intellectual superiority in the face of the mystery of existence.

sun

Photo: Solar eruption, Dec 31, 2012 – courtesy of NASA Images

Science Set Free

Monday, December 17th, 2012

sheldrakeThe Science Delusion by rebel scientist Rupert Sheldrake challenges the current scientific dogma that life is mechanical and purposeless. His chapters ask: “Are the laws of nature fixed? Is nature purposeless? Are minds confined to brains?” The title is a bit misleading but perhaps it’s a dig at Richard Dawkins (of ‘God Delusion’ fame), who describes living things as ‘machines’. The US edition title is Science Set Free, and it’s Sheldrake’s aim to break free from rigid materialistic science. Anyone who has ever had a pet, kept bees or grown a tree, knows that plants and animals are living organisms with a sense of purpose, not just an assembly of chemicals:

 All living organisms show goal-directed behaviour. Developing plants and animals are attracted towards developmental ends…Even the most ardent defenders of the mechanistic theory smuggle purposive organising principles into living organisms in the form of selfish genes and genetic programs.– Rupert Sheldrake

Even the smallest entities seem to have a form of consciousness. He describes remarkable single-celledStentor_roeseli swamp creatures, called Stentor (photo), which have a memory despite having no nerve endings (synapses). Sheldrake writes most lucidly about science and philosophy, and he’s not afraid to theorise about fringe science events (which he explains with his rather cryptic theory of ‘morphic fields’). Read a review.

This Is Not The End Of The Book

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

ecocoverThis is not the end of the book is a fascinating conversation between two great bibliophiles, the author  Umberto Eco and film-maker, Jean-Claude Carriere. They discuss the history of the physical book and our digital future. It’s a rambling, wide-ranging conversation (as the best are) and the enthusiasm of these book lovers swept me along. And there’s an especially fine chapter on book censorship.

The Internet has returned us to the alphabet … From now on, everyone has to read… Alterations to the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.’ – Umberto Eco

Italian Twilight Zone

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition. And, it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. – Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone)

Catastrophe, the strange stories of Dino Buzzati (1949) is a brilliant collection of surreal stories. Each deals with a disaster and many have an allegorical mood. People are trapped on a train rushing towards an unknown cataclysm; a reporter searches for a elusive landslide; a rich family refuses to believe there’s a flood outside their house.
Buzzati wrote Catastrophe after WW2 and it reflects the fears of the time. My favourite is a kind of parable about dictatorship in which a bat-like creature terrorizes a household. A more satirical story has an epidemic of ‘state influenza’ which attacks only those opposed to the government. The scariest tale is about a hospital with seven floors that lead a patient either upwards or downwards, towards life or death.
These bizarre, suspenseful stories reminded me of the best of The Twilight Zone which also walked the fine line between real and imaginary (eg. the episode Nick of Time) .

Fantasy should be as close as possible to journalism.– Dino Buzzati

Across Many Mountains

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Book review: Across Many Mountains by Yangzom Brauen is the remarkable true story of three generations of women from one Tibetan family, who encompass cultural extremes from old Buddhist Tibet to Hollywood glitz. The first part of the book is a gripping account of an escape, via the Himalayas, from the brutal Chinese invasion of 1950 ( which fulfilled a 1,200 year old Buddhist prophecy: ‘The Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth‘.) Part two is fascinating because of the culture clash when the Tibetans experience Western ‘civilisation’. When the family finally return to Tibet in the 1980s they find ‘a country that has been robbed of its soul’. The Chinese have suppressed the language and culture (and still do). But the book is even-handed and also has a warts-and-all picture of Old Tibet where Buddhism was influenced by folk religion. The 90 year old grandmother-nun, Kunsang, is the heart of this inspiring book.

Book group discussion notes.
Recent news about Tibet

Exploring the Afterlife

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Sum, Forty Tales from the Afterlives, by David Eagleman, is a hugely entertaining, often thought-provoking book. Each very short story describes a quirky version of life after death. There is an afterlife populated only by people you remember; one where you are split into different ages; another where God is a married couple. Listen to Stephen Fry reading one about a highly ordered afterlife. The stories are not so much about theology or God (although He, She, and They do appear as somewhat fallible characters) as about treasuring the life we have now – plus a bit of humour and sci-fi just for fun. Here’s a video interview with Eagleman (a neuroscientist) who describes himself as a ‘Possibilian’– one who explores new ideas. (More novels about the afterlife).